Sensate regimes of war: smell, tracing and violence

Kevin McSorley

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This article explores the fabrication of ‘sensate regimes of war’, concentrating on the typically under-analysed sense of smell. Smell is a sensory mode capable of apprehending potential threat and enmity in ways that are orthogonal to other ways of sensing. Accordingly, the organization and interpretation of olfactory sensation occupies a distinctive place in war. The article details a particular genealogy of martial olfaction, exploring the olfactory capacities of soldiers and their augmentation through various non-human and technological means in specific milieus of combat. It notes how the distinctive affordances of smell have underpinned numerous wartime practices, from tracing improvised explosive devices to militarized manhunting. These developments supplement and trouble ocularcentric accounts of martial sensation and power that concentrate on the increasingly abstracted co-production of vision and violence in wartime. They highlight rather the significance of an alternative ontology of the signature or trace of enmity, and emphasize how in particular warscapes to smell is to kill. The article concludes by arguing that critical inquiry into war would benefit from a broader theorization of all its sensate regimes right across a sensorium that is itself being continuously transformed through war.
Original languageEnglish
Article number0
Pages (from-to)155-173
Number of pages19
JournalSecurity Dialogue
Issue number2-3
Early online date14 Jan 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2020


  • sensate regimes
  • smell
  • senses
  • trace
  • violence
  • war
  • atmosphere
  • olfaction


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